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Public editor: It sounded like a hoax, and it was

Screen grab from home page of famedaddy.com

Recently, a Globe and Mail Hot Button blog featured an outrageous story happening in Britain about a celebrity-obsessed culture. Last Wednesday's blog was on a marketing promotion for a new website in the U.K., which said the site was set to start a fertility service offering celebrity sperm for sale. For the price of $24,000 or more, the story went, you might purchase the sperm of a retired English cricket player or a multiplatinum artist.

The reporter mused that "it sounds like it could be a hoax designed to prank die-hard celebrity hounds" and she was definitely on the right track. The problem here is that no one followed through on that good instinct and either dug a little deeper or avoided the story altogether.

It was a hoax, an elaborate and well-planned hoax, brought to light by the Independent in Britain on Friday.

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The Hot Button blog linked to the Fame Daddy fertility service website and also to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, which also covered the story. The CEO of Fame Daddy was also interviewed on Britain's ITV network. Turns out the "CEO" was an actor. ITV has apologized to its viewers, noting that the TV production company that launched the stunt (for a satirical British show) "clearly went to great lengths to pull the wool over the eyes of the program and our audience."

This hoax was drawn to my attention by iMediaEthics.org, a not-for-profit website founded by an adjunct journalism lecturer at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Iowa.

Kevin Siu, The Globe and Mail's executive features editor, says Hot Button's mandate "is to take stories that are already widely reported and to offer context, opinion and a snapshot of the debate. It's not meant to be investigative, but to capture the online discussion and debate around a hot topic. We do a sniff test – in this case, it had been reported by the Guardian, ITV and Telegraph and the hoaxer even appeared on ITV."

This online-only feature is today's equivalent of the water cooler, meant to be a little bit of fun and reflect interesting chatter online, which Hot Button notes in its tag line: Lifestyle news, buzz and chatter. In picking up that buzz and chatter from various sites in Britain, there should have been greater attention paid to the reporter's good instinct.

The Telegraph report and ITV broadcast originally linked to in the Hot Button blog are no longer active and because the blog was picking up the news reporting from those sites, The Globe and Mail has decided to de-link the article so readers aren't misled. This blog, however, will be available to anyone wanting to know more about the hoax or the original story.

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